Some restaurants are so well hidden that you must explain how you found them. FAD Fine Dining, a Nigerian restaurant tucked away on the far side of the Cobb Marketfair shopping center, behind a Waffle House, is one of them.
The restaurant is run by a Nigerian émigré, Ade Faderin. FAD stands for Fine African Dining and also is the nickname of Faderin, who is impossible to miss. He wears a large, stylish pair of black and gold eyeglasses and a white chef’s coat embroidered with FAD’s logo. If it is your first time at his restaurant, he won’t miss you, either.
When I stopped in on a recent Saturday, he was curious to know how I had found FAD, what had drawn me in the door. Perhaps this is because I don’t much resemble the clientele and had to confess, when asked, to never having traveled even remotely near Nigeria.
But I explained that I had both read and heard about FAD’s food, from friends, and from Garden and Gun. This wasn’t sufficient explanation for Faderin, who asked me to watch a short video produced by the Southern Foodways Alliance on his phone before ordering.
It was a lazy Saturday. I’d already ordered a big bottle of Nigerian brewed Harp, a clean refreshing drink. I was in no rush and neither was he, so why not watch a little video on the phone?
Recommended for you
Recommended for you
Recommended for you
One of the things that Faderin talks about in that video is suya, a grilled beef brisket dish, that he says everyone who visits his restaurant must try. I found this to be true. When it came time to order, Faderin said, “I always recommend that people try the suya on their first visit.”
But I’d been flipping through the menu for a while now and the colorful pictures of vegetables were drawing me in. “I don’t know,” I mused. “I was thinking about trying the okra.”
Faderin paused. “Well,” he said, “Are you going to have that or have what I recommend?”
Obviously, I ordered the suya.
It was a good decision. The brisket was unlike any I’ve had before: not smoke-ringed and tender like Texas barbecue, nor stewed down into strings like some roast. Instead, it was chopped into lightly chewy hunks, just big and sturdy enough to be picked up by the toothpicks that came with it. The subtly sweet seasoning and smoke that flavored the beef found a perfect complement in the addictive, salty red pepper seasoning served on the side.
When Faderin delivered my plate, he pointed to side dishes of jollof rice and efo riro (stewed spinach) and said, “Here’s your jambalaya and collard greens, too.” He was joking, but only a bit. As many astute scholars of Southern food history have pointed out before me, understanding the dishes we know as Southern today is impossible without an appreciation for the West African cuisine that shaped it. Those who possess an academic interest (or simple curiosity) in the lineage of dishes now served at your neighborhood meat-and-three would learn much by simply sitting down at FAD and ordering around the menu.
But an academic interest is not required to enjoy this food. The jollof rice was rich and red, flavored deeply by some bewitching blend of dried herbs. The efo riro was salty and potent, cooked down as it was with dried fish and shrimp. (Look out for the bones.)
Perhaps Faderin was also right about steering me from the okra. When I tried it later, it proved too fishy for my palate, though I’ve heard from others who love it.
As is tradition, if you order the vegetable stews, Faderin will suggest you order eba, a ball of cassava root dough, to go along with it. It has a mild taste that balances some of those pungent flavors and makes the meal considerably more filling. I have to admit the traditional eating technique, using the dough as a kind of dimpled utensil, is beyond my level of coordination. If you’re like me, a fork will have to do the trick.
Most recently, I stopped in on a Sunday afternoon and found a small crowd in attendance and a musician singing light pop songs behind a keyboard. When Faderin came around this time, he needed no explanation and gave me no preamble or rules before I ordered. He just shook my hand and said he was glad to see me again.
I had the homeboy special, a big bowl of black-eyed peas cooked into rich, soft pottage, topped with spicy stewed goat and lined with a row of fried plantains. If I’d been served the same dish at a Southern joint downtown, I wouldn’t have been that surprised. I scraped the bowl clean.
At the bar, a couple guys were chatting over those big bottles of Nigerian Harp and they wanted to know, had I ever been to Nigeria? Is that why I was there? I shook my head no.
“But, if it tastes anything like this, I’d feel right at home,” I said. They laughed at that.